01/05/2014 09:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Along a River, a While Ago

"Sometimes I get this crazy dream that I just take off in my car. But you can travel on 10,000 miles and still stay where you are." -- Harry Chapin, WOLD

The radio station was an unremarkable brick building encircled by palm and fruit trees. My intention was to use the airwaves of a local broadcaster to launch a journalism career after spending too much time as a disc jockey. A vision of myself reporting from the Khyber Pass was not hard to conjure even as I delivered stories on the air of giant bird attacks and drunks driving into irrigation canals. These were the reports I daily read into the microphone located down at the bottom of America.

The news part was more of a privilege than a job, though. Management really just needed a technician to flip on the transmitter and make the tape player properly function and constantly monitor the carousels. Nobody at the station cared too much about news unless there were advertising dollars to be generated by information from the police blotters or the positive nonsense offered by the chamber of commerce.

"We've got a congressman and a mayor, and they run things down here," Charlie, the station manager said. "But I don't want any politics on my air. Ribbon cuttings, only. Then get some car crashes, stabbings, robberies, drug arrests, that kind of thing from the cops and I'll let you do the news."

Down to thee tropical clime

We were just married and down from Michigan to the tropics. The radio station owner rented us a portable building for housing and we lived in that just below the transmitter tower. The carpeting was the kind of cheap green fake turf that is used on miniature golf courses and we tried not to laugh every time we walked through the front door. Banana palms grew tall enough near the windows to obscure most of the sunlight and I paid one week's salary for each month's rent.

The decision to run for the border was made in the midst of a Midwestern blizzard. I had read in the back of a trade publication that there was an opening at the AM station in far South Texas and I had sent the address a cassette tape of myself reading the news, which had been recorded at my brother-in-law's kitchen table. Charlie had called the farmhouse up in Michigan where my in-laws lived and had reached my new bride.

"He said he has a cottage in an orange grove that we can rent for cheap and you can start as soon as we get there," she said. "He said he was going hunting but we could just call and leave him a message to let him know if you wanted the job. Oh, and the temperature was 78 degrees down there today."

My judgment was impaired because I was in a phone booth outside of a truck stop on I-94 not far from Chicago and snow was almost up to my knees. I had been caught out by a blizzard on a return trip from a job interview at a radio station in Peoria. Although I barely heard the little red-haired girl's words, I caught the phrases "orange grove" and "78 degrees" and there was nothing else to consider.

"Just call him back and tell him we'll be there as soon as we can, or leave that message." I had to almost yell to be heard above the wind. The snow outside was flying horizontally and I realized I was certain to be sleeping that night in a booth at the truck stop coffee shop.

A few days later we loaded our 1968 Opal Kadett station wagon with wedding presents and began driving southward toward Texas. I had always loved reading cowboy stories in school and when my father was not crazed with anger and instability he laid on the couch and watched old black and white westerns with Randolph Scott ridin' the range alone.

"Looky there, buddy boy," he used to say. "They got them table top mesas out near Las Vegas. I'm gonna go out there someday and see me one a them."

My love of the west may not have come from daddy but I have never been interested in anything east of the Mississippi River. The first trip I took through Texas on a motorcycle a few years before graduating from college had convinced my teenaged brain that I was destined to live in the state. This notion surely had a narcotic effect on my sensibilities because I had accepted a job 1500 miles from home without even speaking in advance to my future employer or having any idea of my actual job responsibilities or what I was to earn.

"I'll pay you $160 a week and you can rent the cottage for $160 a month," Charlie said after he finally got his wet, unlit cigar out of his mouth. "I'll need you to sign on in the morning by 5 a.m., do the news every half hour, play some music, get the weather on the air, and then you can do whatever you want from 10 o'clock until 3 in the afternoon but I want you back here to do it all over again until 6:30."

"That's not a cottage," I said.

"You want the job and the cottage or not?"

"Yep, sure do."

The radio station served a twenty-six city market in the sub-tropical region of Texas known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Small border towns had emerged along the northern side of the big river and they straddled a highway that almost paralleled the Mexican frontier as it reached toward the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville. A 5000-watt directional signal pulsed up and down the Rio Grande for hundreds of miles and gave the AM broadcaster a bit of historical market dominance.

The Valley so Low

We did not, however, understand much about the place where we were now living. A national news magazine had recently sent a reporter to the Lower Rio Grande Valley and had published a cover story under the giant block letters proclaiming, "The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas: America's Third World." The story indicated that the valley had the lowest literacy rate in the U.S., highest incidence of intestinal parasites, which was a consequence of the greatest concentration of outdoor privies, lowest average annual income, worst rate of child mortality, and smallest percentage of high school and college diplomas in the entire country.

The news Charlie wanted on his air, however, was not about social ills and bringing attention to difficult issues. Portraying the valley as too troubled would be bad for business and that meant less money spent on advertising and fewer cigars for Charlie. He was happy when he turned on his radio New Year's Day and heard me reading a report about a giant bird that police said had terrorized several people the previous night.

"I'm telling you, this bird's wingspan was twice the width of our patrol car," one of the officers told me. "There's no bird that big down here but that's what we both saw."

A man in Brownsville told police that his trailer was shaking in the middle of the night and when he went outdoors he looked up and saw a giant bird, "taller than a man," and it swooped down toward him with "huge claws trying to grab me." A similar narrative came from an agricultural worker further up river. He said he had been walking in an orange grove and suddenly a creature flew at him out of the sky and grabbed his back with talons bigger than human fingers. Skeptics did not know what to think when he showed his bloody back to emergency room doctors who had to patch up shredded skin.

The story refused to die because more witnesses claimed to have seen the great bird. Our phone began ringing with calls from journalists all over the world after the Associated Press sent a dispatch across the wire. Within a few weeks, I was almost convinced I saw the creature buzz a donut shop during my dark morning motorcycle commute to sign on the radio station.

"We should cut a record on this." Our program director was always looking for methods to keep up the number of our listeners. In Houston, they had contests on the air and gave away new cars but Charlie refused to offer his audience much more than movie passes, which was hardly a reason to tune to our frequency.

Rio Grande Gold

"I'm serious," TK said. "Let's do one of those flying saucer type interview records where we'll have a character interview the big bird and his answers will be short clips from current hits."

The 45-RPM we produced was as silly as the concept but it remained number one on the playlist for three or four months. I wrote a narrative piece about the legend of the Big Bird, which became the B-side, and Charlie took the two cuts to Nashville and had several thousand records produced and shipped back to the valley. TK and I guessed that maybe 20,000 were sold but we never knew because any profits went to Charlie and the radio station.

TK was a slender and soft-spoken man and he loved working at the radio station with a passion that escaped me. Nothing bothered him. He was a black man in a 99% Hispanic population and he programmed the radio station with disco and pop chart songs that had more potential to gain an audience in Chicago and Detroit than in Donna and Edcouch, little towns along the Rio Grande. His insight, though, was astute and he consistently picked gold and platinum records to play in advance of their national success. His office was lined with gold records from recording studios whose artists he had helped make famous.

None of that made any difference to Charlie. TK was constantly being badgered by the station manager to play different music. We both discovered that little we did seemed to be of value to our radio boss. After winning reporting awards and writing stories that drew national attention to our obscure little operation on the north bank of the big river, I petitioned Charlie for a raise. My tenure on the job as disc jockey and news director had reached eighteen months and I thought I deserved an increase in pay.

Charlie agreed. He told me there was to be a "little something" for me in the next pay cycle. The description was painfully accurate. When I opened my check envelope, I looked at the numbers and did not recognize an increase. Fortunately, Charlie had done the math for me in red pencil on the stub. The numbers were pathetic. He had written, .05 per hour x 40 hours = $2.00 per week x 52 weeks per year = $104.00. I laughed, momentarily, thinking he was kidding and then I went into his office, unannounced and angry.

"Are you serious, Charlie?" He did not look up from whatever he was reading. "This raise on my check. A nickel an hour?"

"I thought you wanted a raise."

"I did. Not an insult."

"You don't want it?"

"I want a real pay increase."

"That's what I gave you."

"No, you didn't." I just looked out the window at the orange trees and the sunshine and wished to glory hell I was not in this man's office. "Tell you what, Charlie. Looks to me like if all you can afford to give me is a nickel an hour increase, the station must be in dire straits and you all must need that nickel worse than I do. Why don't you go ahead and keep it?"

"Okay, I will."

Without ever taking the cigar out of his mouth, he went back to whatever he had been reading. My next paycheck went back to $160 a week before deductions, instead of the $162 he had offered. We did not notice the difference in our lives, even though the extra two dollars might have purchased a couple of hamburgers at Mr. Q's.

The work was never drudgery, though, and almost always inadvertently entertaining. Language differences were a frequent source of humor. The majority of the borderland spoke Spanish as a first language and a significant part of our audience lived across the river in Mexico. Many of the callers to our request lines were children, learning their first words of English, what constituted a verb and how it was properly used. Often, instead of asking us to play a song for them, we were requested to "put" a song. Eventually, I stopped calling our phone tree the "hit lines" and began referring to it as the Rockin' Rio "put lines."

The language gap also meant that listeners, regardless of their age, were often uncertain of the lyrics they were hearing. There was also the possibility that we did not understand what was being requested when we took listener calls. I learned this one morning before sunrise as I was recording a caller's request to be played back on the air as the song was introduced.

"Hello. Rockin' Rio hit line." There was a pause and then a tiny voice.

"Mister? Mister? Can you 'put' a song for me?" I thought it was a little boy.

"Sure. I'd be happy to 'put' a song for you. What would you like to hear?"

"Can you put that song by that Mary?" Momentarily, I did not know what he was asking.

"Uh, you mean the hit song by Mary McGregor?" She had gone to number one with a ballad called, "Torn Between Two Lovers."

"Yeah, her, mister. Can you put that song 'Born Between Two Cupboards?'"

I am not sure if the coffee that came out of my nose was heard over the air but I do know I was able to stifle my laughter until I closed the microphone. First, though, I had to introduce the song.

"Direct, from our Rockin' Rio Put Lines at 686-5454, by request, this is Mary McGregor, and Born Between Two Cupboards."

Maybe that's why Charlie took his nickel back: I was too much of a smart ass. But this was border radio and an AM station on the edge of America. We were not changing the world. In fact, the world changed the valley but not until five or ten years after it had finished with the rest of American culture.

I still fell in love with the place, though, and the Winter Texans who drove 35 miles per hour on the inside lane with their blinkers endlessly flashing, the RV parks in the orange groves, long irrigation canals with dirt tracks for running, elegant Washington palms lining every street, authentic regional food from family-owned restaurants, weekend nights and rum punch in Mexico, short drives to the beach and South Padre Island, the way the wind came up off of the gulf every afternoon and cleared out the air, and even finding entire heads of cows sitting up in the frozen foods section of grocery stores before learning they were dropped into holes filled with coals in backyards on Saturday nights and eaten as barbacoa de cabeza the next morning after church.

My career did not advance very far from the Lower Valley. I went upriver about three hours to Laredo and began working in television. The border still felt a bit like the Wild West in those days and there was no shortage of news. Charlie and I never spoke again after I left but I heard that late in life he had opened an ice cream shop down on the island and sent his profits to a home for abandoned children in Mexico. I was pleased to know there was such generosity in his veins.

TK went back to college and got his master's degree and became an educator and administrator and is the principal of a high school a few miles distant from the studio where he loved to play records and talk. We have remained the best of friends through passing decades, his kindness and sensibilities providing perspective when I lose my way. I still have not made it to the Khyber Pass, though journalism delivered me to many exotic locales and historical moments I never anticipated I might have witnessed back when I was spinning "Born Between Two Cupboards" on a turntable.

The little red-haired girl is still around, too, and I would take her hand again and go back to that corn popper radio station tomorrow and our crumbling adobe under the palms and do everything all over again without the slightest change.

But I might need at least a dime an hour pay hike.